Call for action on fossil looters

24 October 2007 | 05:58 Code : 15748 Geoscience events
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An amatuer palaeontologist found this fossilised skin believed to be 160 million....

  An amatuer palaeontologist found this fossilised skin believed to be 160 million years old. Photo Hawke's Bay Today.Tougher laws are needed to protect scientifically precious fossil beds from being looted and exported to overseas dealers, says palaeontologist Hamish Campbell."At the moment, the Antiquities Act is very loose. You can export just about anything and you'll be fined only about $250," he said."It's quite a serious problem - New Zealand has been losing fossils; there must be a constant bleeding [of specimens]."One of the most showy types of fossils being exported is fossil crabs from 24 million-year-old Miocene-era rocks in North Canterbury and Taranaki."The geological community is aware of many localities that have quite literally been plundered by dead-keen amateurs," he said."What we need to do is introduce a disincentive - we need to raise the bar so that people are liable to real penalties."All fossils going overseas should have some paperwork with them - and they should be cleared through an agency such as GNS Science."He was speaking at a media preview for last night's launch of a new exhibition, entitled Dead Precious!, covering the nation's fossil record which will tour the country for three years.Science and sponsored by Shell Oil, showcases New Zealand fossils as indicators and predictors of climate change, evolution, natural disasters, and resources such as mineral deposits and oil and gas.Dr Campbell said NZ did not have many extraordinary fossil sites but it was important to protect the scientific knowledge that could be garnered from those which were known. One of the most common questions asked of geologists at GNS Science and at Te Papa, was where people could go to collect their own fossils, he said." There is huge interest in fossils," he said. "But a lot of people collect them only as beautiful objects, out of the context of the scientific knowledge they can convey." He said GNS keeps a record of sites at which fossils have been found, both on private and public land. When the resources became available the ideal would be to provide sites, on public land, where people could safely fossick, without destroying important specimens." They have to be public places, where people can collect without feeling they are robbing the natural heritage of the country."Dr Campbell and a colleague at GNS Science, James Crampton, have used computer graphics to bring to life images of "dead" fossils frozen in rock for millions of years.All the main periods of geological time in ancient New Zealand are represented in the exhibition, and the oldest fossils on show are 500 million-year-old trilobites that were found in northwest Nelson.These small crustaceans, related to modern-day crabs and shrimps, provide clues to what New Zealand was like 500 million years ago.The youngest fossil is a moa bone less than a million years old.The real fossils are supplemented with imaging done with technology made available by Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor's Weta Workshop.

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